Juan Mijares grew up in Barstow, a small desert community not far from Los Angeles. There was nothing to do there but stand in the dust created by cars as they blasted by on Route 66. But Juan found a way to entertain himself. He built a guitar, and then taught himself how to play it.
In the years since then, perhaps 30 or more, Mijares has continued making fine string instruments, but these days they are violins, violas and cellos.
From his tiny shop in downtown Colorado Springs, Mijares tells how he decided to become a violinmaker. He said a friend had heard about a violin making school in Salt Lake City. The teacher was Peter Paul Prier, a graduate of the famous Mittenwald School of Violin Making in western Germany.
A visit ensued, and Mijares decided to apply.
“He (Prier) would only take a handful of students each year,” Mijares said of his four-year education in Salt Lake City. “No more than five or six students would be accepted from every 100 or so applicants.”
Class work was intense, and thorough. Instruction included music, theory, and general subjects. And, Mijares had to learn how to play the violin. Then he started making violins.
“We made about 15 instruments each (over the four-year class),” Mijares said. “We got to keep our first and last instrument; the rest were sold.”
The instruments students made were of high quality, Mijares said. Some were better than others were, but many sold for thousands of dollars.
The school kept the money for student instruments sold, said Mijares. “It helped pay our tuition; otherwise tuition would have been twice as much.” Tuition presently runs about $9,000 per year.
In the beginning of the movie The Red Violin, which tracks the life of a 300-year-old instrument, the instructor examined a student’s work, and then smashed it into pieces when he found it would be appreciated by someone not truly a musician.
“Peter would do the same thing if an instrument didn’t meet his expectations,” Mijares said.
Mijares’ tiny shop is located in the back of a building he owns in downtown Colorado Springs. It is appropriate that the shop in front, which faces Tejon, sells quality, sells one-of-a-kind handmade craft items.
The secret to a good violin, viola or cello is good wood and careful construction, said Mijares, as he lovingly pulls out a slab of wood that has been aged for 50 or more years. Mijares truly cares for this lumber; it is as though he senses some life still in it. He does not toss it back into the bin, but carefully places it to avoid damage.
In addition to constructing his instruments, Mijares sells instruments by other makers, and he does repairs on instruments. “My business is about one-third making, one-third selling other instruments, and one-third repairs,” Mijares said, as he prepares to show a video of his former teacher building a violin.
Prier’s son made the video, and took care to mike the sounds of chisels, planes and saws as they turned some slabs of wood into a work of art.
Much of the wood Mijares uses come from Germany. Maple makes up the back and sides; the top is spruce.
Mijares gets in the neighborhood of $8,000 for a violin, a little more for the viola, and about twice that for a cello. The instrument is an investment that keeps on giving, he said.
“What else can you buy that goes up in value and gets better with age and use,” he asks rhetorically. He points out that a Guarneri or a Stradivarius can easily bring a million dollars or more. None of his instruments has reached those sums, but he did sell the last violin he made at the Prier School to pay for the birth of his first son.
“You can always make another violin,” he said.
In the days of Stradivarius and Guarneri formulas for the finish secret, as many believed the finish to contribute much to the final sound of the instrument.
“We have our own varnish,” Mijares said. “Everybody buys the same ingredients, but the secret is in how you mix and apply them. God is in the details.”
After graduating from the Salt Lake school, Mijares worked for four years at Brigham Young University in Provo, and then did a stint at the Bearden Violin Shop in St. Louis. But Mijares had always wanted his own shop. He had heard of Colorado Springs and decided to open his shop here in the summer of 1987.
He lives on 40 acres near Woodland Park, on the old Holiday Hills ski resort.
“We just tracked down the old t-bar and we’re going to reinstall it this summer,” Mijares said. There are no plans to reopen the ski hill to the public, he said.
While Mijares is just hitting his stride as a violinmaker, he is teaching his son, Nicholas, 12, his craft. “He’s building his first violin, just like the old masters did hundreds of years ago.”
In fact, the entire Mijares household is into music. His wife Rebecca teaches cello, and was principal cellist of the Brigham Young University Student Orchestra. Oldest son, Juan Carlos, 14, plays guitar in a rock band, and Rebecca, four, plays a viola set up to play like a cello.
“She is the star in church. Even if she doesn’t get all the notes right, everybody loves her,” Mijares said.
The shop, called Mijares Violins, is located at 735 N. Tejon, Ste. 1, in Colorado Springs. The telephone number is 719/578-8242.